A Writer's Views on the Arts, Literature, Culture, Life, and Humanity

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Friday, January 23, 2015

Renaissance: Reject or Respect?

Sandro Botticelli from his painting
Adoration of the Magi
I have enjoyed teaching my Humanities class immensely. Being able to teach not only my own specializations in theatre, film, literature, and playwriting, but also the visual arts, music, etc., it's just delightful.

In the visual arts section of the class, I focused on Van Gogh, the Impressionists, and the Renaissance. To be able to dig deeper into art history has been fascinating. I've flirted with the visual arts a good deal of my life, but other focuses took priority, so it's felt like I get a second chance to really explore an alternate reality I could have been a part of. With the research I have been doing to teach the class, I feel like I am learning as much as I am teaching, which is always a thrilling place to be as an artist and an educator.

No matter how thrilled I have been learning more about art history, however, I have come to learn that not everyone shares my enthusiasm. In the essay section of the test I administered to my students yesterday, one of them articulately explained how she had "lost all respect" for the Renaissance after learning more about it. Her essay was actually very well argued, with persuasive language, logic, and history to back her up. She criticized the Renaissance for being "godless" (ironically, since most of the world's greatest religious art comes from this period), chipping away at society's morals, and indulging in pagan fancies. She took particular issue with artists like Sandro Botticelli and Donatello, as well as the Medici clan, the most powerful patrons of the Renaissance. Part of this criticism, in part, came from her reaction to a section of a documentary we watched in class about the Medicis from the Empires series produced by PBS (which I highly recommend).

Adoration of the Magi by Sandro Botticelli
Now although I strongly disagree with my student's conclusions about the Renaissance and its worth to human history, I was actually quite admiring of her essay, as it took a strong point of view and backed it up with passion, intelligence, and conviction. We all need people in our lives who will challenge our assumptions and show an opposing point of view. Also, frankly, there is a great deal in the Renaissance that doesn't live up to its ideal of "rebirth," but rather (like any point in history) reveals more than its fair share of the unpleasant underbelly of human nature. This was particularly true with the rise and fall of the Medici family, who had their own fair share of triumphal figures (Cosimo d'Medici, Lorenzo "the Magnificent" d'Medici, etc.) who, through their patronage and power helped push through some of the greatest progress in the arts, architecture, and science in human history; but who also had figures of tyranny and despotism (Pope Leo X, etc.) mar the family's reputation.

Looking specifically at Sandro Botticelli, it's easy to see why strongly religious students like this young woman who wrote the essay may have conflicted feeling about the Renaissance. Although Botticelli did religious paintings, some considered him insincere. If you take in account paintings like Adoration of the Magi,  in which Botticelli paints the Magi coming to adore the infant Jesus and his holy family, then its tempting to see it as pure religious fervor. However, when you know that the multitude of people surrounding Jesus (and who are in the forefront of the painting) are the Medici clan and all their most prominent friends (including Botticelli, who paints himself as part of the Medici's inner circle), then the painting seems less like devotion, and more like sucking up to a powerful patron.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Raising the Book

In William Shakespeare's The Tempest the protagonist-wizard Prospero gives a memorable and stirring speech. After a long exile on a desert island (where he has mastered his magic, raised a daughter, befriended/enslaved/mistreated a monster and a fairy, and lived a painful, imperfect, turbulent, yet enchanted life), Prospero is about to find the freedom from the island he has so long been drifting on and go back to the outside world.

In the speech, Prospero vividly describes the power his magical art gave him, but then declares his intent to give up that same magic before setting on his way home to Naples:
...But this rough magic
I here abjure, and, when I have required
Some heavenly music, which even now I do,
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I'll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I'll drown my book.
(Act V, Scene I)

Playing Prospero at Utah Valley University
In my undergrad years at Utah Valley University, I played Prospero in a unique and creative production directed at UVU by Christopher Clark. Taking a cue from Jacobean Theatre, Clark separated the bodies and voices of the characters (I played Prospero's body), making it similar to a human enacted puppet show. Due to this fact, as I played out Prospero's movement every night, I was able to listen to the words I was acting out, rather than focus on reciting them. The above speech stuck with me particularly and even before I had been cast in the play. I had long connected with the role of Prospero, despite some of the character's problematic flaws. So these words stuck out to me at this particular juncture of my life, and when I contemplated what I was going to name this new blog.

William Shakespeare wrote this play at the very end of his life (the general consensus is that either The Tempest or A Winter's Tale was his last play), so many read this speech as the great Bard retiring his playwriting and "breaking the staff" of his enchanted words. So I connected with that idea when I have contemplated the last several months of my life, which led away from my blog writing for a period. I took a sabbatical from online writing until recently for a few reasons: